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Monday, January 23, 2006 

Are You a Heretic? part 4

marcguyver has another excellent question:
Do Josephus' writings as a historian count as proof of Jesus' existence?
Josephus was one of the first non-Christians to write about Jesus, in a passage known as the the "Testimonium Flavianum."

A Quick Background
Josephus was born around the time that Jesus supposedly died. When Josephus was about 40, he published his first work, a History of the Jewish War from A.D. 66-73. When translated to English (and by using the 'print preview' feature in my browser), it is over 300 pages long, and was split into eight "books".

His second work is the Antiquities of the Jews, in which contains the Testimonium Flavianum. Originally written in Greek, Englishman William Whiston's translation in 1737 is in wide use even today. The Antiquities contains twenty books, each between 25-45 (English) pages. As the copyright ran out long ago, we can find his entire text online, for example on Early Jewish Writings or Early Christian Writings, two site apparently run by the same person.

He also wrote a long autobiography and the relatively short On the Antiquities of the Jews. We know a lot about him, from his patrons to his three marriages.

Concerning the Evidence
Thanks to stardust1954, you can read about the debate as to the authenticity of Josephus' Testimonium Flavianum.

Let's say that Josephus DID write the truth as he saw it about Jesus. For grins, I'll compare this to contemporary times.

Let's say a tremendously long book is published by author Joe. In it, he states there was a person name Bob, assasinated around the time of his (Joe's) birth, and that people found Bob's speeches to be inspiring. Also suppose there happens to be a biography about Bob that his own family publishes. The biography makes Bob sound like a great guy, even given the factual errors it contains. Imagine that Joe is the first to mention Bob outside the families' book.

Would you believe that Bob was real?

To me, even if the disputed paragraph in Josephus turns out to have been written by him, it isn't really proof of a historical Jesus.

There is this feeling that over two thousand years ago, people were little more than cave-men scratching out an existence. But there is an astonishing amount of information we have on people during this time, like Julius Caesar (I linked to his Chronology) and here are biographies of six of his contemporaries: Titus Labienus - Cicero - Pompey - Theodosius of Bithynia - Catiline - Titus Pomponius Atticus.

I just found a good essay about the debate on religioustolerance.org.

To me, the bible contains factual errors on details of the life of someone named Jesus, and the first reference to him outside of the bible can't be called compelling. Believe if you want/need to, but I don't see it.

Love the Bob - Joe story...very creative!

Okay, how about Cornelius Tacitus (born A.D. 52-54) A Roman historian, in 112 A.D., governor of Asia, son-in-law of Julius Agricola who was Governor of Britain A.D. 80-84?
Writing of the reign of Nero, Tacitus alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome:

"But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the attonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities.
Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also." Annals XV.44

Tacitus has a further reference to Christianity in a fragment of his 'Histories', dealing with the burning of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70, preserved by Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii. 30.6)

By the way, the following excerpt by Josephus has also been a bit compelling to me:

A Jewish historian, became a Pharisee at age 19; in A.D. 66 he was the commander of Jewish forces in Galilee. After being capture, he was attached to the Roman headquarters. He says in a hotly contested quotation:

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day." Antiquities. xviii.33 (Early 2nd century)

Can anyone produce anything that was written about Jesus, any records or anything that were written AT THE TIME JESUS LIVED...not after, when the story started to spread around from the storytellers? You would think that there would be more written if he was such an important figure in history...and yet there are only a couple of questionable brief writings by Josephus. And you say that Cornelius Tactus "alludes" to the death of Christ...however, alluding is not definite...and Tacitus was born years after Jesus supposedly lived. We know there were Christians in Rome, that is well-documented along with the history of Constantine and his role in promoting Christianity and making it the official state religion for his own selfish reasons. Just as we know Mithraism was the main religion before Christianity, though no one can prove there was such a being as Mithras. The similarities between the two religions are too uncanny to ignore.

After reading more about Tacitus, of course Nero would know about the "center" of the christian faith since Nero is one who persecuted and tortured christians. It still does not prove that the "prince" he is "alluding" to really existed. Finding evidence that Jesus existed would not make me believe in god, so I have nothing to gain or lose by proving that Jesus existed. It would be interesting to find this evidence. I am not an enemy of historical fact.

marcguyver (by the way, is that a play on MacGuyver? Love it!), you say: 'following excerpt by Josephus...' -- that IS the "Testimonium Flavianum" I mention in my post.

I'll have to research Tacitus, and I read about Severus just today - hey, is that where JK Rowling got that name?

stardust, I echo your sentiments: for a long time, I did think someone named Jesus lived as a teacher / philosopher, and it really was shocking to me to consider that it might not be true. I am all for evidence without my having a hidden agenda as to the final outcome. Anyway, it makes it harder when posting to say "Jesus, if he really existed, supposedly said ..." etc :)

There are no serious scholars who believe that the quote about jesus in Josephus is legitimate. Just look at the quote itself. Josephus, a self-proclaimed Pharisee, talks about jesus being the "christ" who was also killed. This is clearly against Pharisaic belief. According to Pharisaic belief, jesus did not meet any of the criteria for being the "christ", and Josephus, the Pharisee would never have referred to him as such. The only way out of this dilemma is to propose that Josephus was a christian, which no one honestly believes, and in which case his claim would have been spurious anyway. The Testimonium Flavianum issue has been settled long ago, and is kept alive only by wishful thinking christian fundamentalists.
BTW, the best book I have ever read on the historical jesus issue is "Jesus - One Hundred Years Before Christ" by Alvar Ellegard. I *highly* recommend it.

How about:

Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (A.D. 112), Pliny was writing the emperoor Trajan seeking counsel as to how to treat the Christians.
He explained that he had been killing both men and women, boys and girls. There were so many being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing anyone who was discovered to be a Christian, or if he should kill only certain ones. He explained that he had made the Christians bow down to the statues of Trajan. He goes on to say that he also "...made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." In the same letter he says of the people who were being tried:
"They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up." Epistles X.96

I know that you are asking for "extra-biblical" texts, books, manuscripts, etc of the existence of Christ; but what is wrong with the historicity of the bible as a validated work of antiquity?

The historical reliability of the bible should be tested by the same criteria that all historical documents are tested under:
1- Biliographical Test (An examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us.)
2- Internal Test (Literary critics still follow Aristotle's dictum that "...the benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself.")
3- External Evidence Test (Do other historical materials confirm or deny the internal testimony provided by the documents themselves?) and 3b- Confirmation by Archaeology.

Truly, if one discards the Bible as being unreliable, a non-historical work, then he must discard almost all other literature of antiquity by using the same standards.

Consider for instance that there are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today.

No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the "Iliad" by Homer is ranked in 2nd place with only 643 manuscripts that still survive. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates fromteh 13th century!

No reputable scholar would doubt the historicity, authenticity, or relevance of Homer's works, yet they would be apt to state that the Bible is unreliable based off of personal opinion and/or preconceived biases instead of sound reasoning and documented evidences to the contrary.

You mentioned Ceasar in your post. Well let's look at his writings. I assume you are confirming that they are accurate and trustworthy as a reliable source document and yet for his earliest work known to exist today (The Gallic Wars, composed between 58 A.D. and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar's day!!

How about the Roman history of Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), only 35 MSS survive; these are known to us from not more than 20 MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing mere fragments of Books III-VI, is as old as the fourth century!

Or what about the History of Thucydides (ca 460-400 B.C.) known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to ca A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (B.C. 488-428). Yet, NO CLASSICAL SCHOLAR WOULD LISTEN TO AN ARGUMENT THAT THE AUTHENTICITY OF HERODOTUS OR THUCYDIDES IS IN DOUBT because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us today ARE OVER 1,300 YEARS LATER THAN THE ORIGINALS!

Compare all of this with works of the New Testament that we have actual extant manuscripts of to this day, with as little as 25 years between the time they were actually written and the age of some of the existing copies in possession today!

Since scholars accept as generally trustworthy the writings of the ancient classics, even though the earliest MSS were written so long after the original writings, and the number of extant MSS is in many instances so small, it is clear that the reliability of the text of the New Testament is just as trustworthy when examined by the same standards.

One more thought...
I find it interesting that scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil; yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of namuscripts, whereas the manuscripts fo the New Testament are counted by the hundreds, and even thousands!

Truly one can LOGICALLY conclude from the perspective of literary evidence that he New Testament's reliability is FAR GREATER than any other record of antiquity!

One thing that I tend to see time and time again is that many people apply one standard or test to secular literature and another to the Bible. One truly needs to apply the same test, whether the literature under investigation is secular or religious. Let the facts speak for themselves.

As a scholar in English and Literature, with a background in Journalism, I know that citing more than one credible source is crucial in presenting a solid case for something. It would be helpful for people to believe that Jesus did indeed exist if there were more solid evidence than just the scriptures which have been translated, then translated and translated again.

I studied courses in Religion and Bible as Literature in a Social Context, and learned how the Christian Old Testament is quite different from the original Hebrew TANAKH, and there is a version even older than that. The Tanakh was written nearly 2,200 years ago and broken down into 5 books...not all the books that are in the christian Bible. The original christian translation of the Old testament was the Septuagint and was written in Greek, since that was the common language in that area at that time.

I am not going to give a whole history of translation lesson here, but my point is, over time, the Bible has been translated, things put in, things taken out, things rearranged. The Bible has really been through the wringer...and many, many hands have had a part in it's translation evolution.

Therefore, though the Bible does contain much verifiable historical data, much has also been changed, cut, added, etc. Studying the historical translations side by side is quite tedious, but the inconsistencies can be seen.

King James had many things cut out of the Bible that did not suit him. Some say he was "inspired" to do so, however, he was not a very nice or holy person and I would not find his judgement very trustworthy. King James's instructions made it clear that he wanted the resulting translation to contain a minimum of controversial notes and apparati, and that he wanted the episcopal structure of the Established Church, and traditional beliefs about an ordained clergy to be reflected in the new translation.
It is from this version of the Bible that we get the American translations of today.

I know this is off the subject a bit, but I am saying why many of us would like more evidence for Jesus' existence than the Bible. Unless some great archaeological evidence is found, I don't think this will be settled anytime soon.

"I find it interesting that scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides."

That is because the translations of these documents have been fairly consistent. And these texts were not written to influence the world to follow a religious movement. There was much power-playing going on during the formation of the christian religion.

Hey Freethought, I've written an article about this over on my site if you want to continue this discussion over there.

I don't want to "waste" space here on yours if this is a bit off topic for you and getting somewhat lengthy!

marc, stardust -- thanks so much for the discussion! I appreciate the chance to look at this issue rigorously, here or whereever. [I was gone all yesterday, and unexpectedly dozed off with the baby at 7:30 last night - oops :) ]

dearest stardust1954, the statements:

"As a scholar in English and Literature, with a background in Journalism,...."


"It is from this (KJV) version of the Bible that we get the American translations of today."


You should kick in gear that scholar in you and do a few more studies on when and where the new "american" tranlations of the bible are coming from. The line of reasoning you just presented is a tad hilarious. bible tranlated, things left out, tranlated from greek into KJV, and now we have a bunch translations of KJV which is what we read today.

Besides actually looking insides a common NIV bible to find sources you could do the simplest of internet searches to refute this claim.

for instance on my first search I found:

"In the years since the KJV came about in 1611, and even since the most recent major revisions in 1769, some wonderful discoveries have come to light. In 1859, Count Konstantin von Tischendorf discovered nearly 350 pages of an early Greek text containing all the New Testament works. He discovered this volume in St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai, and it became known as the Codex Sinaiticus. This Greek New Testament was dated to the mid 4th century AD. Another discovery, the CodexVaticanus, is a volume of 757 vellum sheets containing most of the works of the Bible, and it dates to the early 4th century AD. Other papyri fragments have been discovered that date to the early 2nd century AD! In fact, literally thousands of pieces of the Bible have been discovered dating earlier than the Byzantine texts that were the foundation of the Textus Receptus. These earlier texts formed the foundation for many of the modern translations in use today, including the NIV and the NASB...A benefit the NIV and NASB translators had that the KJV translators did not have was access to earlier manuscripts."


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I didn't undertand James' point, quickly:
marc - "but we have all these copies of the bible around!"
stardust - "yeah? look at them closer, OK?"
james - "the NIV isn't based on the KJV but older work" [which if true, backs up stardust's point to marc, the bible is shaky as a historical reference]

Ok...revised comment
Since James didn't provide a link to his source where he got his information.
I have looked for it and found it.

Also....You have to scroll down and go through the paragraphs to see where James's paragraph is copied and pasted from that webpage. It is one whole paragraph.

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  • I'm the freethoughtmom from New England. Welcome!
  • The word rational means having the ability to reason. Reasoning takes time. Giving yourself the space to think is practically a luxury in our society.

    My father is a logical engineer, my mother a caring nurturer. My handwriting with my dominate hand resembles that of my father, the other, my mother. I feel lucky to have both sides to draw from.
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